Remember that thing called a cassette? If you loved it, you would sit in the driver’s seat of your 2 door and ever so patiently rewind the disastrous curls of that filmy, magnetic strip back into the casing by jamming a pencil in the supply reel hole and twisting for a good fifteen minutes?  Remember “Ghetto Blasters” and “My First Sony?” Remember when your dad would chastise you for dragging his precious needle across a Doobie Brothers record?

No?  Then you are younger than 30.  Yes? then I hope you, like me, have been getting with the doubling-time fast changes digital media have had on our stories.  either way, I hope you’ve written that story, have more, and are ready for self-pub format expansion.

Audiobook teddybear stock photo

I mean, now we “watch” music on youtube or “stream” radio broadcasts with the option of consuming it long after it has aired. The wide availability and range of file formats means we can consume a message as quickly and easily as we want.

And we WANT.  More than three-quarters of all music-related transactions were digital singles last year, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

But it isn’t just music that people are downloading in droves.

The Audio Publishers Association announced last February that audio books were a $1 billion dollar industry – and growing.

In 2012, total industry sales of downloadable audiobooks rose by more than 20 percent. That year, 13,255 titles came out as audiobooks, compared with 4,602 in 2009.  That’s a pretty significant jump in just a couple of years.

Can it be?  The proverbial “book on tape” making a re-invented comeback?

Is it just the hectic nature of our lives that can account for such a boost?  While its true that multitasking may have had a moment a few years back, one only has to listen to a TED talk or tune in to one of the gems that public radio and television have to offer about current social science to learn that doing more than one thing at a time equates to doing both, poorly.

It’s not just a need for ultra-efficiency or the numbness of freeway commuting that is driving our desire to be, as we were in childhood, told a story out loud.

Audio books, as well as podcasts, seem to be tapping into our historical psyches and reactivating a long-thought lost gene for the oratory experience.  It isn’t with our tech-ed up self that we listen to someone else read what we could on our own Kindles or Nooks.  It is with a much, much more ancient part than that.

For most of human history, information dissemination occurred out loud.  Whether sung, like Homer’s epic Illiad and Odyssey, performed on stages like the Elizabethan Globe Theater or passionately sermonized from an Eighteenth Century soapbox in the style of Thomas Paine.

Do we really have the attention span for novel-length audio?  Can this form liberate itself from ghostlike recollections of dusty dollar sales in library basements or the image of a harried working mom trying to jam in a chapter after dropping the kids to practice so she doesn’t have to fake it ‘til she makes it again at book club?

Yes.  And what’s more, current publishing likely means paperback, Kindle, Audio and snappy visual content on blogs and social sites all play a role in the new authorial career.

In the age of the cassette and compact disc, audio books seemed to carry a sort of low-brow stigma; as if they were meant for an isolated, “non-reading” audience or at least, people too busy to devote to “actually reading” the literature like the rest of us.  For some reason, it was kind of like “cheating” ones way into holding some cultural capital.  Odd, considering that, as the historian William Graham puts it in Beyond the Written Word, even after mechanical printing had increased literacy, it wasn’t until the second half of the 19th Century that private, silent reading became widespread.

Hearing the text, by oneself or in groups was the collective preference until pretty recently.

As a nine or ten year old kid, I absolutely relished getting, occasionally, scared.  Not like adult, “my own looming mortality” scared, or even “lost in Wal-Mart” scared.  But spooked, startled, creeped-out.   There was nothing like a particularly theatrical group leader totally selling the tale about the hook that gets stuck in the side of the car from a boxed set of Scary Stories I adored, some of which included a stunning black and white illustration to hint at the level of grossness therein.  The rest was left to our burgeoning imagination—a mental and emotional faculty I fret has atrophied a bit in kids today.

There is an availability aspect to the vocal delivery that engages us.  Even in our infotainment soaked consciousness, the spoken speaks to us.  Not to mention offers an inclusionary embrace to those people for whom reading print, holding a book or maintaining visual focus is difficult or even impossible.

Truthfully, as an editor and freelance writer, I am in the habit of reading on the page, or screen more than I am of listening to audiobooks.  But the last one I did listen to, a nonfiction book that has helped me profoundly, took on a completely different quality when spoken aloud.  I was soothed by the sound of the two voices that alternated reading sections, and more able to visualize in a meditative versus problem solving capacity.

So, aside from being super encouraging for the performance poetry set and the venues that support them, how does this oratory revival translate in the writing and publishing industry?   Sales, that’s how.

From audiobook samples of your in-print or ebook works, to weekly podcasts or webinars, to free promotions and book trailers, speaking up and speaking out, as an author, is a vital component to any serious marketing strategy.  And don’t forget the good old speaking engagement or industry appearance.  Passionate, live delivery of your message is as reliable as ever as a method to get your potential reader-listeners to resonate with you and likely buy your books.

Format your book for print, e-readers and audio. Start right in your own neighborhood and on your own webpage keeping in mind that the more ways your audience can experience what you have to share, the larger audience you have on which to make an impact and an offer.

What “books on tape” made an impact in your development as a young listener?  Where were you when you heard that key passage and thus were imprinted with all the attending sensory details in that environment as a result?  Have you been able to create reader/listeners with this format that may have not otherwise accessed your work?


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Susannah Cyrus

Susannah M. Cyrus is a writer, editor and marketing consultant. She is a Contributing Writer for TCK Publishing, an independent book publishing company. Susannah is passionate about helping people more effectively express themselves. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Colorado in Boulder, CO and is a stickler for quality communication. When she isn’t editing manuscripts or working on her own writing projects, she is probably outside.